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A Fragrant Saga of Mexico’s Greens

At the California Green Party convention in San Diego a few of years back, a wild-haired hippie stood up and gave us one of those Hope Beyond Our Shores speeches Greens are so fond of. He’d just been down to Mexico, where he’d sat for a long and satisfying afternoon with Jorge Gonzalez Torres, the founding patriarch of Mexico’s Greens.

As they sat on a rooftop near Mexico City’s central square Gonzalez had regaled our interlocutor with tales of the power of his Green Ecologist Party, with its five senators, handful of deputies, and recent shared victory as a very junior, but very important partner in the presidential election campaign.

I remember rolling my eyes and saying in a stage whisper to the people around me that the Mexican Greens weren’t a real Green Party, just a family of reactionary thieves with an environmentalist veneer.

This week, the now retired patriarch’s son Jorge Emilio Gonzalez, the “Niño Verde,” as the papers here call him, has confirmed that judgment admirably. In an obscenity-laden meeting recorded on a buttonhole camera, Gonzalez is seen discussing a multimillion dollar hotel and port project in Cancun with a pair of well known Mexican developers, then extracting a promise of a two-million dollar bribe if he can use his senatorial influence to get the project approved.

At first, he told local newspapers that the video was a fabrication, a Hollywood production; now he’s saying that the bribe was a smear job orchestrated by his former allies in the executive branch, and that he was merely playing along to “see how far it would go.” One imagines that if it had gone as far as an approved project and a two million dollar deposit in his bank accounts, Gonzalez wouldn’t now be offering those same bank accounts to public scrutiny.

In fact, the bank accounts of Gonzalez and other party leaders, many of them family members, are already well-padded with legally obtained public funds.

The main business of the Mexican Greens, along with a half dozen smaller parties, is ladling generous sums of public money into their own bowls. In 2002, for example, the Greens picked up about 18 million dollars in public financing. Which, considering that Mexico is a developing country with a population about a third of America’s, is quite a staggering sum. The money was supposedly spent on campaigning, but the Federal Election Institute is re-examining the spending and the party’s internal rules in light of Monday’s revelations.

Dissidents in the party (who may be behind the videotaped bribery offer) have accused Gonzalez of diverting party money for his own uses.

In their brief history as a major minor party, the Mexican Greens have pursued national alliances with two of the three big parties ­ the National Action Party, the conservative, Catholic, pro-business party of current president Vicente Fox, and more recently the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the corrupt, corporatist former ruling party which still maintains a steely grip on rural communities in most of the country.

The only big party the Greens haven’t allied with is the one conventional Greens might seem most drawn to-the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party.

The Greens’ latest electoral alliance, with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, is particularly instructive. The PRI, whose seven decade rule in Mexico was not marked by any visible concern for the environment, warded off criticism of its anti-democratic methods by creating and financing dozens of tiny figurehead parties to contest elections. The profusion of smaller parties, PRI leaders figured, created a comforting illusion of democratic choice on the ballot while preventing any opposition party from developing a significant following.

The leaders of these minor parties meanwhile got to fill their pockets with the generous-some might say excessive, possibly absurd, proceeds of Mexico’s public election financing laws.

Recently, the Nationalist Society Party was fined $14 million dollars because, the National Election Institute found, it had shoveled more than 60 percent of its public financing into two companies run by its directors over the past three years. Meanwhile, $10 million dollars in annual public financing got the party 0.2 percent of the national vote in 2003.

Now the PRI is positioning itself for a run to take back the presidency in 2006, when Fox’s single term is up. Running for the first time without control of the executive branch, the situation’s a little different, and the former governing party actually needs the votes and cash that a smaller party can provide. The Greens were perfect: they are the fourth-biggest electoral force in the country, having actually convinced a fair number of credulous younger voters that they are a real political party.

And they’ve proven quite willing to compromise their positions for a share of power, or at least booty: enthusiastically joining, for example, the PRI’s campaign to introduce the death penalty to Mexico, where it is essentially proscribed.

With allies like these, it’s unsurprising to see the Greens here engaging in the unusual fundraising practices seen on the video. Although, as Gonzalez pointed out in a press conference here, he never received any money from the developers, and therefore committed no crime (the attorney general is looking into that, actually), the young senator has probably ended his own political career and destroyed the party/business that his father so carefully built.

Meanwhile, the real leftist opposition seems to have its first real chance at the presidency since the 1988 election, which mostCK people here believe was transparently stolen by the PRI.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the bland but well-liked mayor of Mexico City, who will almost certainly be the PRD’s candidate for the presidency, is by far the most popular politician in the country. He has deliberately constructed an image as a leftist who gets things done: for instance ringing the city with a modern, efficiently constructed elevated freeway. It’s the kind of project that gets him media coverage all over Mexico, and a contrast to Vicente Fox’s often empty promises.

In recent polls matching him with hypothetical rivals from the other two big parties, Lopez Obrador maintains crushing leads of twenty or more points. This week, he’s probably thanking his lucky stars his party never shared an alliance with the Greens.

JACK BROWN is a writer living in Mexico City. He can be reached at: jack@jackbrown.us

 

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